A Key NSA Overseer's Alarming Dismissal of Surveillance Critics

The NSA's inspector general mischaracterized Edward Snowden's critique of the agency in remarks at Georgetown.
An NSA data-collection facility in Utah. (Reuters)

The National Security Agency's overseers have a spotty-at-best post-9/11 track record. The NSA carried out an illegal program of warrantless wiretapping during the Bush Administration. Even after the President's Surveillance Program was reformed, the agency built a surveillance dragnet that collected information on the private communications of millions of totally innocent Americans, a dramatic change in approach carried out without popular input or consent. And according to the FISA-court judges charged with overseeing the NSA—the very people who signed off on the phone dragnet, among other things—the agency has violated the Fourth Amendment and the law on at least thousands of occasions.

Some of those violations affected millions of people.

As well, insufficient operational security recently resulted in the theft of a still unknown number of highly classified documents by an employee of an NSA subcontractor. Civil libertarians and national-security statists alike have reason to be upset.

For all of these reasons, it must be a tough time to be George Ellard, the NSA's inspector general. The entity that he heads declares itself "the independent agent for individual and organizational integrity" within the NSA. "Through professional inspections, audits, and investigations," its website adds, "we work to ensure that the Agency respects Constitutional rights, obeys laws and regulations, treats its employees and affiliates fairly, and uses public resources wisely."

Since taking his post in 2007, Ellard has scarcely made a public statement. This week, however, he participated in a conference at Georgetown, and while efforts were reportedly made to keep his press exposure to a minimum, his remarks have been reported. 

They're interesting—and do not inspire confidence. We begin with the account provided by Kevin Gosztola:

Ellard was asked what he would have done if Snowden had come to him with complaints. Had this happened, Ellard says would have said something like, "Hey, listen, fifteen federal judges have certified this program is okay." (He was referring to the NSA phone records collection program.) "I would also have an independent obligation to assess the constitutionality of that law," Ellard stated. "Perhaps it’s the case that we could have shown, we could have explained to Mr. Snowden his misperceptions, his lack of understanding of what we do."

Even on their own, these comments are strange. Many aspects of the Section 215 phone dragnet are now public. Edward Snowden is on record with specific objections to them. The same goes for lots of other NSA initiatives: As they've been publicly fleshed out, Snowden has articulated why he believes the public ought to know about them. If Ellard understands what has transpired since last June, why is he speaking as if Snowden's leaks could've been averted if his supposed "misperceptions" had been corrected? That possibility isn't consistent with the facts. Knowing their actual nature, Snowden still thinks the programs should be public.

Misunderstanding Snowden so completely is strange. A subsequent statement is worrisome. It comes via Politico:

“Perhaps it’s the case that we could have shown, we could have explained to Mr. Snowden his misperceptions, his lack of understanding of what we do,” Ellard said.

And if Snowden wasn’t satisfied, Ellard said the NSA would have then allowed him to speak to the House and Senate intelligence committees. ”Given the reaction, I think somewhat feigned, of some members of that committee, he’d have found a welcoming audience,” Ellard said in a reference to outspoken NSA critics on the panel, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

It is difficult to know exactly what this means, but it certainly appears as if the inspector general of the NSA is questioning whether the Senate Intelligence Committee members expressing alarm at surveillance practices are actually earnest.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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